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Match Preview

7 Things to Look for in the First World Cup Warmup

American Soccer Now's Jon Arnold is in the Bay Area looking for clues that will shed some light on Jurgen Klinsmann's plans for tonight's match, and next month's tournament. Here is his Azerbaijan preview.
BY Jon Arnold Posted
May 27, 2014
1:52 PM
SAN FRANCISCO—It all starts tonight. The 23 men are finally named and they will engage in their first match of the send-off series at 10 p.m. ET in Candlestick Park (ESPN2, UniMas).

Sure, the opponent is Azerbaijan, a team you didn't know was nicknamed Milli—it means "national team"—until you looked it up on Wikipedia this week. The temperatures won't be scorching like they will be next month and this stadium is about to be deconstructed—unlike so many venues in Brazil that are still in the process of being constructed. Still, it's the final squad. The big show is almost here.

Here's what to look for in tonight's contest.

1. A relaxed Jermaine Jones

The Besiktas man has a reputation for intensity and a physical style of play, and to be clear we’re not necessarily suggesting that won’t be the case Tuesday against Azerbaijan. But we are seeing the most easygoing Jones ever. Whether it’s getting out of Schalke or feeling at peace in the U.S. team, the 31-year-old midfielder has been posting funny videos, joking with teammates, and generally appearing warm all around. If he’s pleased with his role, it could be great news for Jurgen Klinsmann and the United States national team.

2. The left back/back line situation

We’ll start the same place we always start when there’s a United States match approaching—at left back. Fabian Johnson is in camp, but he said Sunday that he’s been playing mostly at right back in scrimmages and training sessions. Timmy Chandler is in camp as well, but from what we saw at training Monday it looks like the spot will be occupied—at least initially—by DaMarcus Beasley.

In fact, Klinsmann appeared to put his starting back four out in the final portion of Monday’s session with Johnson at right back, Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler in the center, and Beasley on the left side. He did, however, caution that things likely won’t stay the same.

“Hopefully, once we’re in Brazil and we have the first game kind of we have that back line doing well and begin consistent and not changing too many things around because you don’t want to do that with a back four line,” he said at Monday’s news conference. “In those three upcoming friendly games, those send-off games, yes because [the teams we're playing in Brazil] are very, very talented.

“There’s races for those spots, and we want to give [players] exposure, want to give them time. We’ll definitely make some changes to give them a chance, to prove a point, but actually with all of them being in here at the training sessions and also the scrimmages we’ve done, we are actually very positive on this whole process. It looks good. Hopefully we can confirm that tomorrow night, by the way.”

3. When da hook gon be?

Murphy Lee and Jermaine Dupri were always ready for the hook to come and the U.S. players will be no different against Azerbaijan. Klinsmann normally elects not to make any alterations at halftime but signaled in Monday’s news conference that he’d be using all six of his allowed substitutions and doing it earlier in the match than usual.

“We have six subs obviously. But we also want to already see a flow in our game with the lineup that is in our eyes very strong and kind of very close to the one we see in three weeks down the road, so we try to kind of fit both, but it’s not easy you know,” Klinsmann said as he broke into laughter.

“But we’ll give all six substitutions probably a little bit earlier than usual and that will give them more minutes but also want to see the guys approaching it from the first second on the field with a lot of enthusiasm and speed and joy to be on the field and get closer now to Brazil,” he added.

Coupled with what we know from item No. 2 about the defense, it sounds like a Timmy Chandler cameo at left back and maybe a chance for Omar Gonzalez to prove that he’s ready. John Brooks also showed well in Monday’s open session.

Up front, there are a bevy of options and a few forwards besides Altidore will get a run out as well. Julian Green is also a potential inclusion.

So, even though there are six substitutes at Klinsmann’s disposal, he’ll want to make the most of them with so many players still hoping to show they’re ready for the group stages.

4. A familiar formation

The manager’s shift to a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield was the best thing to happen to soccer speculators in this country since—well, since Julian Green’s switch a few days earlier. Still, it set off waves of wonder about whether or not we’d see this formation deployed at the World Cup.

The answer to that won’t come for a few more weeks, but judging from the personnel groups used in Monday’s training session that doesn’t seem like it will be the case against Azerbaijan. A return to Klinsmann’s standard 4-2-3-1 looks to be the plan for the start of the match, though it will be malleable as usual.

5. Bedoya’s big chance

With Landon Donovan out of the picture, it looks like Nantes man Alejandro Bedoya will get the first opportunity to win the left midfield spot. He spoke Sunday about his versatility and ability to play in a number of different roles on the field. The midfielder was mired at Rangers before returning to Sweden, where he’d clearly outgrown the league. His move to Ligue 1 has helped him improve his game and gain the confidence needed to believe he can succeed on the sport's largest stage.

“I think in soccer, in football, like in any sport, confidence is a huge thing," he said. "I feel like when you have the confidence as a footballer or an athlete it just helps a lot. When I went to Nantes in Ligue 1 I was coming off a good season in Sweden."

“I felt good. After I got that first start against PSG, I had a great game. That just did wonders for my confidence and everything. I got the confidence from the coach as well. In that game I played a couple different positions and throughout the whole season I was playing different positions, so that helped me in my whole game technically and physically.”

6. A weary opponent

With the league only recently concluding and a large time difference with not much time to adjust, Azerbaijan won’t be mistaken for Portugal or Germany on Tuesday night. “We play only what the players can do,” Azerbaijan manager Berti Vogts said Sunday.

But if the visitors do play similar to the Americans’ second group opponent, they’ll have to have someone to play the Cristiano Ronaldo role. Even if his form in the Champions League final wasn’t top notch, the U.S. still is readying for a challenge from the Portuguese attacker.

“If I’m going to be honest I don’t think he had his best game, but he’s the world’s best player,” Bedoya said Sunday. “And I think we’ll do everything we can to analyze him and hopefully we can break him down and do our best to defend him—like Atletico Madrid did. I think they did a great job against him. You know, that’s a great side to look at, how hard they work as a team and every player working hard for each other.”

7. Players Avoiding injuries

This is the worst time to suffer an injury (though many will tell you there are a few decent options waiting in the wings), and that was reflected in Monday's training session. Don't expect too many crunching tackles to go in, though several guys—especially the defensive midfielders—don't seem to know the meaning of "exercising caution."

To wit, Kyle Beckerman went in on Michael Bradley during the squad's final training exercise Monday and took down the Toronto FC star and ASN 100 No. 1. Many fans in attendance took in a bit of breath before Bradley hopped up and sprinted to his spot, but it's safe to say everybody's a little more on edge than usual this time of year.

PROJECTED STARTING XI: Howard; Fabian Johnson (RB), Cameron, Besler, Beasley; Jones, Bradley; Zusi, Dempsey, Bedoya; Altidore

OK, your turn. What will you be looking for in tonight's match? Got a prediction? Share it below.

Jon Arnold is an ASN contributor and podcast maker. Follow him on Twitter.

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